With the crack of cascarones and the crescendo of mariachi music, VIA Metropolitan Transit unveiled its newest route through San Antonio’s downtown entertainment corridor.
The Saturday ceremony held outside the Westin Riverwalk launched a six-month pilot program that will take tourists and locals alike on a trolley route to downtown arts venues, including the Tobin Center for Performing Arts, The Majestic and Empire theaters, and Aztec Theatre.
Downtown’s latest circulator arrives at each stop every 10 minutes from 6 p.m. to midnight ,Thursday through Saturday, and is free to the public.
“We know that our public transportation options are more limited than other cities our size. So it’s important for people to have a route like The E where they can come downtown and park once but still enjoy various attractions,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said.
The 17 designated stops focus on Commerce, Market, St. Mary’s, Alamo, and Navarro streets, giving patrons easy access to more than 60 restaurants, 40 hotels, 19 entertainment venues, 13 parking facilities, and multiple cultural sites.
According to the San Antonio Area Tourism Council, more than 26 million people visit the Alamo City annually and have an $11 billion impact on the local economic.
“While it’s important to have this available for tourists, it’s also important to have this available for San Antonians. Downtown belongs to everyone in our city. We have so much to offer and The E will make it so much more accessible,” Mayor Taylor said.
The pilot program, a partnership between VIA Metropolitan Transit, Centro San Antonio, and the City of San Antonio, is just one more facet in the revitalization of downtown started under former Mayor and current Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro.
With more than 108,000 local jobs tied to the service and hospitality industries, and continuing efforts to increase residential density in the urban core, improving transit services is considered vital, especially in the wake of the canceled streetcar project.
“I’m excited that we can add this to the VIA family of services,” VIA President and CEO Jeffrey Arndt said. “For tourists that are at the convention center, which is a major investment for the city, it gives them an opportunity to visit other parts of San Antonio to which they could not have walked.”
Through assessments from the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and an ever-evolving 2035 Transit Plan, VIA is working to develop transportation alternatives that give locals other options than driving their own vehicles when traveling to the central city. How the transit agency will accomplish that as San Antonio continues to rank among the nation's fastest growing cities is the challenge. VIA and the City are engaged in a comprehensive planning process for 2040 called SA Tomorrow that includes public meetings, social media, web-based polling, and gauging future demand based on population growth and dispersion projections.
“The first challenge that VIA has is that we only have half a cent sales tax and other metropolitan transit areas have a full cent sales tax,” Arndt said. “Houston, for example, which has the same size in service area brings in four times the dollars through their sales tax. So our struggle is having the financing.”
Monetary constraints only highlight the need for more successful community partnership like those that made The E a reality.
VIA Board Chair Hope Andrade praised the outreach by such entities and their responsiveness to the growing number of downtown residents and visitors.
“This is truly an exciting endeavor for VIA,” Andrade stated. “The E will provide a much needed and requested service in the downtown area, and we were fortunate to be able to partner with Centro San Antonio and the city of San Antonio to develop this service.”